Fan god Nathan Fillion comes clean about his hardcore GEEK cred and why he wants to wear William Katt’s cape.
Is it possible for a man who makes being cool look so effortless to also be a complete and utter hardcore geek? When it comes to actor Nathan Fillion, the answer is a decided, “Hell yeah.” Spend a few minutes with the man called “Captain Tightpants” by fans of the short-lived but dearly beloved Firefly and you’ll find a man who has portrayed an array of genre icons such as the aforementioned Captain Mal Reynolds. They include snarky crime-solver Richard Castle on the hit ABC series Castle, Hal Jordan in the animated Green Lantern and putzy superhero Captain Hammer for patron saint Joss Whedon in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.With a lifelong love of comic books and unicycles (don’t ask — we did), Fillion got to take a well-deserved victory lap at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con in July, during a panel session that conjured up a rock show-style fan frenzy as the actor attended a 10-year reunion of the cast and crew of Firefly. “We had a hall with 7,000 people in it, and I was told they oversold the panel by 20,000,” Fillion says in awe. “I was in my hotel room that morning looking down on this lineup that weaved back and forth under these tents, went down the street, stopped for a crosswalk then started again and went halfway down to the harbor, wound back all the way across the other side of the harbor, and then halfway back again. I thought, ‘What are those people waiting for?’ Because they’d been there all night. It turned out to be Firefly. It was 10 years ago and for 14 episodes.” He pauses, a little overwhelmed with emotion. “I’m glad to know that I’m not alone in my love for that show.”
Definitely not. But what a weird journey it’s been to get here. Rewind to March 27, 1971, when Fillion was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Wicked cool, eh? Fillion had every intention of becoming a teacher while pursuing his acting “habit” on the side. That interest became a full-blown addiction when he found himself in New York City cast on the ABC soap opera One Life to Live. Three years later, he took a chance by moving to Los Angeles to see if he could make it in Hollywood, where he scored a recurring role in the sitcom Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, a featured part in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and the villainous Caleb on Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Firefly hit in 2002.Pegged as a Harrison Ford for television, Fillion couldn’t find a vehicle that connected with a mass audience, but was nurturing a growing fan base of devotees that only continued to grow as he provided voices for such animated efforts as King of the Hill, Justice League Unlimited and, as Green Lantern, in a couple of DC Comics’ animated DVD films, as well as the video games Jade Empire and Halo 3. In between, he starred in Tim Minear’s short-lived Drive, had a recurring role on Desperate Housewives and was cast in the starring role of crime-solving mystery writer Richard Castle in ABC’s Castle, which is now in its fifth season. Plus, there have been forays to the Web in such online productions as Spike’s PG Porn, The Guild, Husbands, Tim Daly’s The Daly Show and, most notably, Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. The two team up again for a modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. We caught up with Fillion just as he was resuming work on another season of Castle.
GEEK: So which came first, the geek or the culture that elevated you to geekdom?
Fillion: When I was a young man, we had, my brother and I, our own rooms and we would share — every other week, we had to turn it over to the other guy — a comic book rack.
Actually, it was a “Comics, Fun for all Ages; Hey Kids, Comics!” rack. There was no DC or Marvel image; there were generic comics in three-tone screen print on the panel at the top — and no bearings, so when it spun, it was just a wire ring on a post, it squeaked and wobbled as it spun, but it was a comics rack. I have no idea where it is anymore; I wonder if we still have it in our parents’ basement. And then my interest in comics outdid my brother’s. I became a bit of a collector. I won’t say a serious collector, but I got to the point where I filed my comics and would do an inventory of them, which I would constantly have to re-write when I got new comics.
You strike me as more of a Marvel kind of guy.
I was really fond of X-Men and Spider-Man, and now there are a couple of iPad apps that have re-kindled my love of comics. First there’s Comixology, which I enjoy because there are so many publishers on one app. If you go back to the comics you loved as a kid, they kind of sucked — the art was bad, the color was bad, the paper was bad, the action was bad — characters would describe their action rather than just do it, which they do now really well. Modern stories are told really well, and there are some heartfelt stories out there that are really good. Spoiler alert: They killed off Spider-Man in “Ultimate Spider-Man.” It was heartbreaking!
Growing up, was your geekiness limited to comic books?
If you remember the very end of the end credits to Welcome Back, Kotter, there’s a kid riding down a street in New York on a unicycle. I was so impressed with that. And then Bosom Buddies came around, and Peter Scolari was doing the same thing — Tom Hanks was on a bicycle and Peter Scolari was next to him on a unicycle. I thought, “How hard can that be?” I saved my money — my dad was always the guy who would put up half for major purchases, so if you could save half the cash he’d give you the other half. So I bought a unicycle, and two of my friends did the same thing, and we all had unicycles for a while — that was kind of geeky. I had an older brother who was very cool, very independent, handled everything — so I think one of those things that brothers do is you want to set yourself apart from each other; you want to be a little different and geekiness helped me because he wasn’t much of a geek. He was very cool, let me tell you.
So you were able to establish your own identity?
Exactly, and it sure was easy being a geek. So freeing. And now, it’s got to be easier to be a geek — we’re so steeped in it now. For example, when I started doing voice work, I had these high-powered people explaining to me how the “Justice League” is doing this thing and who the villain is. I’m like, “Guys, I know. I know exactly what’s going on here.” And it’s nice to have that cultural reference, that little niche reference to my past that’s now paying off in spades.
It is a dream job like that. I get to be a participant and a fan at the same time, and it’s a wonderful position to be in. “What did you want to be when you grow up? A superhero? I’ve been that.” The dreams come true.
But when they come true, do you sit back and think, “Damn, what do I dream about now?”
It’s true! I had a bunch of goals in life, and I thought, “If I could get to this point, I would be pretty happy.” Now I’ve wanted to buy property in Los Angeles for a while. I was gainfully employed and looking around, but I couldn’t find anything at a reasonable price that was nicer than the place I was renting for dirt cheap, so why buy? Then the recession hit and I was employed, and I bought a piece of property at a reasonable price and whoo, I’m so excited right now. It took me a long time. I was feeling sort of nomadic and now I have some roots. So that was a big goal of mine, and that being achieved, now I need a new goal.
Go to the moon…
I’m afraid of space. Just so we know, just to be clear, I’m afraid of space. If we were ever talking about doing a space flight, like those people who want to go on commercial space flights, I am not in.
As you moved beyond comics and unicycles, did you outgrow your youthful obsessions or did they stay with you?
At one point, you’re looking at $20 in your hand and you think, “Comic books or gas in my truck and a date?” There’s only a finite amount of resources, and comics were just getting good, but my first vehicle was a truck. It was very reliable and had great character, but I had to put gas in it to get around. So my priorities changed, although superheroes were always on my mind. I would think, “If I could fly, this traffic would mean nothing to me.” Or, “If I could control gravity, I could move that car and park there.” My thoughts were always with super powers in some way — reading minds, telepathy, telekinesis, flight, controlling gravity, time control… always there!
So you do think of this stuff?
I hope we all do. I hope it’s not just me.
I was studying to be a high school teacher in Alberta, and acting was something I did on the side. Acting is not a “success” career choice. It’s a lot of hard work for not a lot of pay. And if you actually get work, you need another job to support your acting habit. So I thought if I had my education, I’d have something to fall back on. I was going to finish off schooling and, four months before graduation, I got a job on a soap and moved to New York City. I did three years there, moved to Los Angeles on the advice of Bob Woods, who played my uncle on the show. He said, “Get out there, kid,” and I did exactly what he told me to do. Thank God, because it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. I spent a lot of time unemployed. I paid my rent on credit two months in a row because I was waiting for a tax return so I could pay off my credit card bill and then have enough money to move back to New York and try to get back on the show. But I got a job at the last minute on a sitcom, and that carried me for two years. After that was Firefly, so I didn’t know that acting was actually a possibility — that there was a chance that I could go to New York and be a successful soap opera actor. I didn’t know [that] this time next year I’m going to get nominated for a Daytime Emmy. But it just started to happen. I would look around and think someone was going to tap me on the shoulder and say, “You’re not an actor, you’re just some guy who dropped out of university, who was going to be a high school teacher.” I was having that fear, and finally I looked around and said, “Everyone here is from somewhere, and some of them studied to be actors, yes, but some of them didn’t. It could happen to anybody, so why not me?” So I started enjoying myself and that was a good day. I remember when I made that conscious choice to enjoy it — to accept it as a dream come true. Next thing I know, I’m shooting guns, riding horses and flying starships.
But not in real space.
[Laughs] Right, not in real space — all the joy and none of the risk.
Do you view Firefly as the turning point in your career?
Absolutely. Unequivocally. I had a lot of jobs before Firefly, and nobody ever heard of me, so what does that tell you? A) It put me on the map, B) it was my first lead role, C) first one-hour drama, D) opened the door for me for my first lead in a feature film, E) it taught me so much just about acting. I did three years on a soap, the hardest work an actor can do, and after all that work, I thought, “Oh, I’m pretty good at this.” Then I got to Firefly and it’s one of those things where the more you learn the more you realize you don’t know, and it taught me a lot. Firefly put my life on a totally different path — I would not be where I am today were it not for Firefly.
Why do you think it continues to touch people the way that it does? There were 14 hours of television and one movie produced, but here we are 10 years later and people still love it.
It’s a wonderful vision of the future. It’s not about technology and it’s not about space. It’s about people. It’s a very creative backdrop to give to these people who are dealing with hardship, dealing with starvation. You know, “We just don’t want to be hungry, we just want work.” These aren’t the rich guys from the universities, these are the poor guys — people can relate to that. Just scraping by? A lot of people can relate to that. Holding it together when everyone seems to be against you, a lot of people can relate to that. I just think that Joss has a way of telling stories that differs from a lot of people. A friend of mine feels that Joss is such a powerful storyteller because where a story twists — we know this is what the hero does, this is what the villain does — Joss takes those twists and says, “But this is what happens in real life.”
You would think with the success of The Avengers, Joss could walk into a studio and get another Firefly/Serenity movie made.
My stock answer is that I wasn’t ready for Firefly to be taken away from me, and I was heartbroken. I got it back in a major motion picture; I was given another chance. I still had all my friends from Firefly, but I didn’t realize how much I missed the characters, and I got to see them all again and I got to live it all again. And in a very big way. I wanted it back and I got it and having gotten everything I wanted, it’s too selfish to say “more.” Joss was then kind enough to put me into Buffy, Dr. Horrible, Much Ado About Nothing; there are rumors in the wind of a Dr. Horrible Two. How do I say, “Give me more. C’mon, Joss, what have you done for me lately?” I can’t. I look around at the house I live in and I think, “I wouldn’t be here except for Joss.” It’s the house Firefly built.
The appeal is, it’s two guys, one with a mike, one with a camera, and people say, “Let’s do this, it’ll be great.” And with the technology that’s available now, you can make something great with just an HD camera, flash drives, music software and your laptop. Technology is really putting “filmmaking” into the hands of everyone. It’s like, “My uncle’s got a barn we can use for a stage. I’ve got a box of old clothes we can use for costumes.” Isn’t that incredible?
It truly is. In not the smoothest of segues, I wonder if that’s a word that can be applied to your stint on Castle, which is obviously your longest-running gig to date. Is that character still fun to play?
Last season, midway through, I jumped out and did Much Ado About Nothing on weekends with Joss. Acting is acting, I do it all the time, I do it every day, but all of the sudden it was Shakespeare and there were some very interesting and very new challenges for me. I would say that Castle doesn’t hold those kinds of daunting challenges for me on a daily basis — and thank God, because if it did, I would be a nervous wreck. But I’m still having fun, I’m still doing what I want to do.
And there’s also the security of a steady paycheck.
Being an actor and having some place to go in the morning, that alone is an incredible feeling. I know many extraordinary actors who are not working. I know actors who are a lot more talented than I am and they’re going, “Where are the jobs already?” And I get it. I’ve had a lot of failed TV programs, and I know what that’s like. I finally have one that’s stuck and now I know what that’s like and it’s a good feeling — the idea behind telling these stories is you have to have people watching, so if people are watching and are enjoying it, that’s what we’re all here for.
I’d like to name some of your more popular characters and get your immediate thoughts on them, beginning with Captain Mal Reynolds.
Awesome, come on! Best character I ever played. The best words that ever came out of my mouth came out of Malcolm.
It’s nice to have a piece of something like that. It’s an animated film, and it’s DC super-lore. I like that lore and, being a fan, it’s nice to have a place in that lore.
I hope he doesn’t grow up too quick. I like that he’s insensitive and I like that he’s inconsiderate. I like that he doesn’t care about everything very much. He cares about what’s important, but other than that, he’s a little bit cold and I like him. It’s very freeing. You can’t go around being a turd to people in real life the same way you can’t walk around punching people in the face a lot, but Malcolm Reynolds can do that. I do things on TV that I can’t get away with in real life. That’s what I like about my job.
One of his superpowers is being stupid. It’s actually quite powerful, his power of stupidity. There was a line and I want to say that Zack Whedon wrote in a “Dr. Horrible” comic book follow-up that occurred when Dr. Horrible literally ran into Captain Hammer. He ran around a corner and, boom, hit him in the chest and got knocked to the ground. Captain Hammer said — and it was a classic line that I loved — “Easy there, big fella. What if I had been a knife?” That’s just where his head is at. I love how he’s so narcissistic, and he doesn’t know how stupid he is. That’s quite a power.
Is there anything common among the characters that make them such a good fit for you?
Usually, when I’m reading a project, there’s one line that will speak to me out loud and inform me of who that character is. In every character, they have one moment or one line that says to me, “This is exactly who this character is and this is what informs all of his choices, this characteristic.”
You get to do one dream project. What would it be?
Greatest American Hero. It’s time for a redo. He’s a hero who is unprepared for what’s in front of him. He has an incredibly powerful tool or weapon but has no idea how to use it, which is a real equalizer. You take this guy who is not so super and not really sure of what he’s doing and give him the powers of Superman. It’s far more human to not be prepared, to not know what to do.
From that kid with the comic book spindle in his bedroom to where you are now, what’s the view from this vantage point?
My dad has taken over my old bedroom. It’s now his office and the walls are littered with framed articles and photos of me. There’s a picture of me for some article — it was years and years ago, late ’90s, and I’m sitting on a staircase, looking off into the sunlight. And there’s a quote right there next to the page, and it’s something I said that just seems to fit so well the farther I go in my career — and that was that everything is working out not like I planned it, but like I dreamed it would be.